Clinton-Gore Team Doesn't Meet High Hopes of Environmentalists

DURING the 1992 presidential campaign, environmentalists were delighted when Al Gore Jr. was tapped to be Bill Clinton's running mate. Mr. Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas - where he emphasized economic development over environmental protection - gave activists more cause for concern than hope. But Mr. Gore, author of the best-selling "Earth in the Balance," was seen as a true believer who was now in position to push a "green" agenda.

President Clinton's pronouncements since the inaugural and especially his appointments to environmental posts - many of whom had been aides to Vice President Gore or prominent in the environmental movement - gave activists even more reason for hope.

But now the president's proposed 1994 budget and other recent actions have environmentalists worried that all is not as green as they expected with this administration.

The White House budget for next fiscal year got only lukewarm praise from environmental spokesmen. "The budget contains important increases in funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, decreases in funding for nuclear energy, and a new tax on energy," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "But important public-lands programs and the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] will suffer again next year. This budget does not reflect an advancing environmental agenda on all fr onts."

When Clinton's economic stimulus package for the current fiscal year is stripped out, the EPA takes an overall budget cut of about half a billion dollars for 1994. In presenting her budget last week, EPA administrator Carol Browner acknowledged making "tough decisions about the allocations of resources in the agency."

Officials with Friends of the Earth called the EPA's reduced budget "especially disappointing" in light of $1 billion increases for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As a presidential candidate, Clinton promised to "expand our efforts to acquire new parklands and recreational sites." His 1994 budget, however, proposes $209 million for such purposes, less than the Bush administration budgeted in 1993 and far below the $900 million authorized for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Beyond the proposed spending, environmentalists were stung by the administration's recent decision not to fight Western interests over grazing fees and royalties on hard-rock mining as part of the budget process. Environmental leaders reacted with words like "chicken," "breach of trust," "retreat," and in the case of House Natural Resources Committee chairman George Miller (D) of California, "a fundamental mistake."

"After this retreat, how can they regain the high road on the environment?" wonders Liz Raisbeck, senior vice president at the National Audubon Society. "The big worry is that this early retreat before the Western mining and grazing interests will make it very hard for the Clinton administration to win on later environmental battles in the economic package."

Others have expressed concern over the recent approval of a hazardous-waste incinerator in Liverpool, Ohio, which Gore, after the election but before the inauguration, had said would be halted pending a congressional investigation. Then there was the administration's recent decision to exempt some fuels under the energy-tax proposal based on British Thermal Units (Btu) and to cut in half the proposed Btu tax on home heating oil. This "weakens the environmental nature of the tax," complains Melanie Griffi n, the Sierra Club's economic director.

In defense of the administration, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen points out that projected revenue from the energy tax "has basically stayed the same" despite the "refinements" made since the tax was announced in February. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promises to pursue higher grazing fees administratively and mining royalties through legislation.

And despite budgetary tightfistedness at the EPA, environmental concerns are found throughout the Clinton team's proposed 1994 budget.

While no new parkland will be purchased, the National Park Service would get a 19 percent hike in its operating budget - mostly for the $4 billion backlog in repairs to existing park facilities. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which addresses endangered species, among other areas, gets an 18 percent budget hike under the Clinton plan.

At the Energy Department, spending for cleaning up nuclear-weapons-production facilities will nearly match that for actual weapons building. Renewable energy and conservation programs get big hikes as well, part of what Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary called "shifting priorities."

Overall Pentagon spending under the Clinton budget continues to go down, but funds for cleaning up military bases - which produce great quantities of toxic wastes - jump 50 percent. At the State Department, $100 million more will be spent on international population programs and $35 million more for international environmental efforts.

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena calls his budget "transit-friendly" because it includes more for public transportation and research on advanced modes of transport. The Agriculture Department's spending for preserving wetlands and taking highly erodible land out of crop production goes up as well.

In at least one case, it can be argued that an environmental spending cut in the long run could be good for the environment. This is the 6 percent reduction in budgeting for the Superfund toxic-waste-site cleanup program. Only a fraction of the more than 30,000 Superfund sites have been cleaned up, and the RAND Corporation recently reported that nearly 90 percent of the money spent had gone for legal costs.

Clinton was critical of the Superfund program during the campaign, and he wants to reform it. Cutting spending for now may be the first step toward a more efficient toxic-waste cleanup program.

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